IT’S Belfast at the height of the Troubles and an end to the bloodshed is on the horizon.
Told through the tragic tales of the members of the war-torn Ryan family, new play Under the Black Rock is a moody and menacing reminder of the trauma that the conflict in Northern Ireland brought to its people.
Written by Tim Edge and directed by Ben Kavanagh, the play is billed as a “timely warning from history” as the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement approaches.
And with a stellar cast on board, led by Harry Potter star Evanna Lynch, it is true to its word, bringing the dark days of the Troubles to the Arcola Theatre in east London and keeping the audience hooked from the very start to the bitter end.
The Arcola boasts a relatively small - yet ample - stage, which, with minimal props and effective lighting, is impressively transformed into the dark and dangerous streets of a city in the grip of a bloody civil war.
Much of the action is to be found in the church-turned IRA meeting room, where the cast of just eight moves seamlessly between a multitude of characters all caught up in the battle that has engulfed their community for many years.
From torture scenes, to funerals and IRA stings, the ensemble moves effortlessly through the settings the highly-charged and fast moving story places them within.
Above them all hangs a huge black rock, a reference to Belfast’s view of Black Mountain, which dangles precariously over their heads.
There are a few scattered chairs and a table which all serve various purposes as the play progresses, but as far as sets go, that is it.
And it turns out that that is plenty. This drama is played out entirely through the performances, which lead us on a journey through the Troubles via the tragic life choices of the Ryan family.
The Ryans are a family divided and we quickly learn who is on which side.
Dad, Cashel Ryan (John Nagayam) is a long-term member of the IRA, who is slowly grooming his much-loved son Alan (Jordan Walker) to join him.
The women of the family, mum Sandra (Fiona Montgomery) and daughter Niamh (Lynch) are against the idea and the violence that is putting all of their lives in danger.
And yet decisions are made with disastrous consequences and allegiances turn in the bat of an eye as this family attempts to find safety while caught up in the underbelly of the conflict.
Eventually, however, with tragedy hitting each member of her family, Niamh is left to find a path through the world she now finds herself within alone.
The Good Friday Agreement is about to be signed, but for Niamh it is slightly too little too late, as her worst fears have already been realised and she is forced to join those she previously despised.
It was a dramatic and dangerous time and there is, understandably, much emotion and intensity to this production - thanks as much to Edge’s writing as to the performances by lead cast members Lynch, Montgomery, Nayagam and Walker.
But there is some comic relief to be had too, largely through the character of local busy-body Mary (Elizabeth Counsell) whose sarcastic one-liners and dithering disposition hide a much more frightening nature which only reveals itself when the stakes are at their highest.
Ultimately, though, there is little to laugh about in this tale.
This is not fiction really; it’s loosely based on true stories and true-life experiences that many people who lived through that period will recognise only too well.
As such it serves as a chilling reminder of the brutal and bloody history of Northern Ireland that is not so distant and the hard-won peace that must be protected at all costs.
Under the Black Rock runs at the Arcola Theatre until March 25. For tickets click here.